COMMENTARY – Writing as a Design Art

I’ve been telling my students that writing is a “design art” for a while now, as a way of conveying that rhetorically effective writing is about more than stringing words together: it’s about designing a “user experience.” I haven’t heard this phrase used to describe writing all that often, but I just did a Google search on the phrase and came across this article, by the same person who wrote the highly recommended Design of Everyday Things.

(Note: Unfortunately the page itself could use a little design boost, but the ideas are solid.)

Writing as Design, Design as Writing

Chapter 17 from Donald Norman’s book, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles

A few notable passages and some commentary:

To be successful, both writing and design have to follow basic psychological principles. And then they must be tested, tried out with readers or users who are similar to the intended audience, and then revised in whatever manner the test results indicate. All this takes a lot of effort and time. Time to learn the principles and appropriate techniques, time to practice them, time to test one’s writing or design, time to revise, retest, and re-revise. Few are willing to expend that much time or effort.

So true. So painfully, painfully true. It’s not just that I experience the consequences of this lack of effort when grading student papers. I also experience it whenever I try to use my fancy TV, which requires three remotes, one of which operates on the principle of opposites. If you actually want to watch a movie, by no means should you ever press “play”! Totally logical.

One of the things that stands out when talking to designers and long-term users of poorly designed systems is that these people take great pride in their skills. They had to go through great difficulties to master the system, and they are rightfully proud of having done so. That, by itself, is alright. The problem is that the difficulties become a test of the person or group. Then, rather than ease the situation for the next people, it is used as a sort of initiation rite. The hardy survivors of the experience claim to share a common bond and look with disdain upon those who have not been through the same rites. They share horror stories with one another.

This also applies to some kinds of academic writing, I think. Because the current generation of scholars had to slog their way through dense, overly complicated prose on their way up the PhD ladder, they figure that the next generation should have to suffer just as they did, so they produce more of the same. And cast a suspicious eye on anyone who dares to make their research seem at all understandable to the uninitiated.

The next passage is from a section whose title follows logically from the problem I just mentioned: It’s Easy to Understand, Then It Can’t Be Very Profound”

More than 20 years ago, in an interview, Vonnegut said: “We must acknowledge that the reader is doing something quite difficult for him, and the reason you don’t change point of view too often is so he won’t get lost, and the reason you paragraph often is so that his eyes won’t get tired, so you get him without him knowing it by making his job easy for him.” I especially love the “get him without him knowing it” part, but Vonnegut has been almost too successful at that. Among his more stupid readers are those critics who can’t tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing; because his books are so easy to read, Vonnegut is accused of “easy” (or lazy) writing. I think you have to be a writer yourself to know how hard it is to make something easy to read — or else you just have to be a little smart.

Reminds me of another saying I often share with students: Writing that is easy to read, was most certainly NOT easy to write.

And in the same vein:

The harder the author works, the easier for the reader. Hasty, inconsiderate authors create hours of effort for the reader. Careful, conscientious writers simplify the task for readers, but at the cost of great time and effort for themselves. Whose time is to be worth more: one writer or many readers?